Heavy Meddle: Is A Pop Cultural Generation Gap Enough To Crush Our May-December Relationship?

A man in his mid-30s is worried because he and his 20-something girlfriend don't have the same cinematic reference points. (Unsplash)
A man in his mid-30s is worried because he and his 20-something girlfriend don't have the same cinematic reference points. (Unsplash)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.



Dear Steve,

I'm in my 30s for a few more years and I recently met a woman in her 20s. She has more time left in her decade than I do but she's not recently 21. She is incredible. She is beautiful and kind and fun.

When we first met, she arrived at a party with another gentleman I assumed was her boyfriend. I took notice of her. I don't know how anyone couldn't. It was a back yard barbecue that some close friends of mine throw every summer. There are always some new faces that show up and disappear but this one sent a lot of us asking the host and his hostess wife about this stunning party crashing figure. It turned out the gentleman she was with was not a love interest.

The night wore on. Soon, it was time for kids to go to sleep and the responsible to make their way to their beds. The rest of us, including this young woman, stayed on. The drinks came quicker. We got along great. She was attentive with everyone, and even playful in responding to all of us who were testing out her comfort level with a big new group of people. She was and is wonderful.

...our cultural references are entirely different.

We exchanged numbers and have seen each other a few times since then. But here is my question: When there is a decade and change between you and someone, does it negatively effect your ability to communicate? At our ages, our cultural references are entirely different. She is not a student of movies and hasn’t seen the ones folks my age consider classics. Whereas, I don’t even try to watch some of the newer movies that have come out in the past few years.

I hadn't seen “Mean Girls,” for instance, until she made me sit down and do so. It feels like we can make a game of catching each other up on our favorite references, but at the end of the day I’ve got decades of pop culture that’s soaked into my brain and influenced everything from my speech patterns to my jokes. Is this stuff worth dredging up?

At some point does it all become incompatible, like trying to plug an Atari into an hdmi port?

Whattaya Mean You Haven’t Seen "Caddyshack"?


Dear Whattaya Mean,

I want to be careful not to disregard what you’re getting at here. Pop culture — movies, songs, TV shows, video games — are a big part of our identities. In fact, they’ve become an even bigger part of our identities than they used to be, because we spend so much more time than ever before in front of screens and/or with buds jammed into our ears. More and more, we’re creating identities that are predicated on a shared history of consumption. So that’s what you and your sweetie are running up against.

I dealt with some of the same issues, because my wife is seven years younger than me. (Or, as she enjoys pointing out, almost eight years.) I can remember how excited I was to show her the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall,” because I felt like it conveyed a lot of my angst-ridden Judaic sensibility, much more charmingly than I can.

So okay, it’s a real thing. But as early relationship issues go, it doesn’t feel like a deal breaker. After all, the pop culture references we cherish and deploy are really just a way of trying to tell people who we are. They shouldn’t be used as proxies for our actual personalities. They’re just clues as to our sensibilities, and our sense of humor.

The pop culture stuff may offer clues. But direct answers are even better than clues.

Ultimately, enduring relationships create their own shared histories: memories, inside jokes, and yes, a few pop cultural references. But that takes time. So you have to be patient and decide if you want to do that sort of Vulcan Mind Meld.

My own hunch, based on how squirrely you are about the ages in question here, is that you feel self-conscious about the age gap here, and concerned that the relationship is doomed because of it. You’re fixating on something pretty superficial as a way of expressing this ambivalence.

I say “superficial” because there are lots of other forms of compatibility that feel more substantial. Do you respect one another? Are you intellectually compatible? Emotionally? Sexually? Do you have the same values? Do you want roughly the same things? What are your respective ambitions? How does each of you feel about long-term commitment? And yes, if it gets more serious, how does each of you feel about family?

That’s a lot of serious stuff to consider.

And that’s not even taking into account the differences in economic power, life experience, and where you are in your lives. That stuff is real, and may pose a challenge if you get serious.

For the moment, though, I’d try to relax and enjoy each other. Remember, dude: you’re in the exploratory phase of the relationship. You’re trying to figure out if you want to get to know each other better. The pop culture stuff may offer clues. But direct answers are even better than clues.

Ultimately, the age gap may be a serious issue for you. Maybe that’s what your letter is trying to say. But it may also be that you really dig this woman and are kind of freaked out because she’s considerably younger than you, and so you’re grasping for reasons to pull the ripcord.

The best way to figure out how feel is spend a little more time together. And to be as honest with each other as you can.

Good luck,

Author's note: Anyone who’s been involved in a May-December relationship of this sort is most welcome to weigh-in here. My sense is that our letter writer is focused on some of the less important issues. Tell us what you think in the comments section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Headshot of Steve Almond

Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond’s new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” will be out in 2024.



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